Nine ships carrying hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid and 600 pro-Palestinian activists are bound for the Gaza Strip today in an attempt to break through Israel's 3-year-old blockade of the Hamas-run coastal territory.
Israel says it is determined to prevent the ships from reaching their destination, and a detention camp has been prepared in the nearby Israeli port of Ashdod to process and deport those taking part in the flotilla. Naval patrol vessels and high-speed missile boats are preparing to confront the ships, which are expected in the area Saturday morning.
Israel has denied the existence of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and publishes details of the basic supplies it allows in daily.
The list, however, never includes essential building materials and other daily staples that might help rebuild Gaza's shattered economy and the thousands of homes damaged and destroyed in Israel's offensive against Hamas at the start of 2009. Israel says it fears such materials would be used by Hamas to build weapons and bunkers.
It has offered to offload the flotilla's cargo and, once screened, transfer the supplies into Gaza by land. The ships carry 10,000 tons of cement, water purification kits and pre-fabricated houses.
"If they were really interested in the well being of the people of Gaza, they would have accepted the offers of Egypt or Israel to transfer humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza" Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said. "Instead, they have chosen cheap political stunt."
The flotilla is organized by the Free Gaza Movement, an international coalition of pro-Palestinian activists, and a Turkish charity.
Although relations between Israel and Turkey have become frosty in recent months, there is no official Turkish backing for the flotilla and authorities in Cyprus took the unusual step Thursday of banning the vessels from mustering there. But the ships are still steaming toward Gaza, determined to get through.
"We are planning on going," said Greta Berlin, one of the flotilla's organizers. "This is not going to stop us. The boats are already under way."
Israel is sensitive to international criticism of its policy toward Gaza. While it stresses the aid it sends in, it refuses to hold political dialogue with Hamas and hopes continued pressure will force the group to release the captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Hamas for nearly four years.
In an attempt to counter more negative publicity, the Israeli government's official press office issued a sarcastic e-mail to foreign journalists this week drawing their attention to an upscale Gaza restaurant called Roots.
The e-mail included the restaurant's menu with a recommendation: "We have been told the beef Stroganoff and cream of spinach soup are highly recommended."
A number of restaurants operate inside Gaza frequented by a rich elite of Palestinians but they are beyond the budget of the vast majority.
Eighty percent of Gaza's population is now thought to be dependent on international aid.